Dialoguing on Natural Capital: Reflections on the discussions at the ESARO Regional Conservation Forum

Natural Capital (NC) is emerging as a key concept in conservation discourse, including in IUCN. The idea of NC is often presented as a key strategy to locate conservation in a position of power within development programs and economic practice. It is premised on the idea that conservation strategies that reflect economics language are most likely to gain traction and be successful.

The NC concept has emerged from specific values and approaches adopted by conservation agencies in recent years. These approaches included PES, REDD+ etc. and have focused on the creation of new markets for natural “goods” (such as carbon) and related maintenance of ecosystem services (sequestration). Proponents argue that creating these markets is critical to ensure benefits to resource custodians and stewards and for achieving conservation objectives. These approaches revolve around the idea that financial benefit (or payment) is a key motivating force in human behaviour and that attributing financial value to environmental goods and services elevates them in decision-making. By extension the idea of nature as capital seeks to ensure that the “value” of nature is sufficiently recognized in development and economic decision making.

Despite this general consensus, considerable uncertainty and differences remain in how NC is understood amongst proponents is understood. Further the impact of PES and NC approaches on just conservation governance and as an organising concept for appreciating the complex relationship between people and nature remains to be seen. Unpacking this concept and how it is likely to impact on rights and governance is particularly timely in light of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UNFCCC Paris outcomes (COP21Paris). It is also important for IUCN as it plans for the World Conservation Congress (WCC) and a new programme.

At the recent IUCN East and Southern African Regional Conservation Forum (30 September to 2 October, 2015) in Nairobi Kenya, NC was the focus of one of four roundtables. Panellists on the NC roundtable included Conservations International, United Nations Programme on Disaster Risk Reduction, CORDIO and the IUCN secretariat. One key argument put forward by the IUCN Secretariat is that environmental change is a key characteristic of the current moment in which ecosystems services and “products” are under threat from human activities. Some characteristics of current environmental change include: a) regions are getting either colder or warmer; 2) world is getting smaller as population increases and consumption of what nature provides increases; 3) growing urbanisation and industrial growth patterns mean a greater propensity to use natural resources, with limited attention paid to landscape and resources rehabilitation; 4) disruptive technologies and a desire for high consumption and accumulation, is eliciting the need for a response to the current levels of production and consumption; 5) the growth of exports of natural products and related abuse and over use of resources is becoming a key threat to conservation. It was argued that NC as an accounting tool can be used for identifying, analysing, mapping, assessing and quantifying nature resources as such the information generated using this tool, can be used for decision-making. In this sense NC is not just about money or profits but is also seen as a construct for natural resource governance. It was argued that NC is about bringing the true worth of nature resources (tangible and intangible) to bare in decision-making, increasing accountability, improving understanding of ecosystems services and providing, and making information critical for decision-making. Such a framing, will help to influence governments to change the ways they value and account for nature, persuade politicians to take the right actions, breakdown silos and empower the management of nature at the appropriate levels.

Throughout the forum it was recognized that better understanding of how NC will play out in reality is needed to ascertain whether the assumed benefits for people and nature are likely to be achieved. What are the implications for rights, culture, and science as components of governance when nature is understood as a “key capital”? How is this likely to impact on the governance needed to build a “just world that values and conserves nature?” What added value does this concept bring; how is it different from existing valuation approaches? What are the risks and assumptions? For example, whom and what interests does it empower and whom and what interests does it disempower? How would it overcome challenges faced in the use of other governance tools and strategies such as environmental impact assessments (EIAs). The governance round table at the same forum drew attention to the ways in which EIAs are usurped by powerful interests and in the absence of citizen oversight have been used to justify and green wash investments. In many cases these investments have led to transfer of power over natural resources from local citizens to powerful national and foreign elites. An outcome of this is that collective responsibility and rights are diminished and responsibility and rights are transferred to a few powerful interests.

A key issue for IUCN must be how will NC approaches effect citizens’ rights and responsibilities. Will NC engender collective responsibility for nature, given that societies have different value systems? Will NC favour elites? How can IUCN ensure that in keeping with the resolutions and programme commitments that NC does not become a repertoire of tools that undermine the governance principles of IUCN?

IUCN has a plethora of governance experience and high quality research from which it can learn. For example, IUCN research on forest governance (the Responsible Forest Governance Initiative) shows that in the absence of democratic and accountable systems and in contexts of inequality local value systems are often usurped by the powerful/dominant narrative of the market economy. An IUCN NRGF scoping meeting (that included NGO and community partners, representatives of the IUCN water programme in Southern Africa and a donor) drew attention to the massive impacts on water quality and availability that occur when collective responsibility is lost in favour of water use as input into large scale agriculture or mining. One critical issue that emerged is how NC approaches will impact on equity as development approaches that see nature primarily as capital take over.

Deepening our understanding of these NC–governance intersections requires taking the time to carefully engage with the the assumptions and risks of this concept. This includes understanding how NC approaches will influence the local value systems? What are the alternative value systems? Which is selected and why? Related questions are how does NC shift power relations? In a context of multiple actors, who looses power and who gains power? What implications are there for the most vulnerable rights-holders, including access and use of land and natural resources? How will the distribution of resources change? Noting that for every change, there are costs. It is important to understand the costs and who will bear the costs for the change? How are the costs compensated? Are they commensurate to the benefits? It is critical to ask the question: who stands to benefit from this NC, the market or the communities and environment, or all? Similarly, we need to consider what the alternatives are. Do we have to conform to the dominant market framings in conservation despite the failures? Can the dominant market system be adjusted to avoid the all to well-known challenges it had faced thus far?

As IUCN considers these issues it is important that IUCN places communities and indigenous peoples at the centre of NC debate if we are to ensure that the SDGs are met and progress is made to achieving the IUCN vision and to securing the IUCN commitment to human rights. At the IUCN NRGF meeting in Addis Ababa 2016, the working group prioritized working with communities – who are local beneficiaries and custodians – to understand and define approaches that support local values and aspirations in Asia and East and Southern Africa. In Mesoamerica both CEESP and the IUCN Regional Office have already developed guides and approaches to improving governance for a “Just World that values and conserves nature” from the perspective of local custodians. In Southern and Eastern Africa governments are pushing development driven by large scale investments in extractives and agriculture. This provides a valuable space for learning about the interface between governance, rights, just conservation and natural capital. Already the NRGF WG is pursuing governance situational analyses in these development corridors with the aim to better understand the social, economic and environmental dimensions and interactions amongst them and to develop appropriate and useful assessment and decision-making guides.

Prosper B. Matondi and Barbara Nakangu
Natural Resource Governance Working Group

Work area: 
Social Policy
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